Conshohocken has never looked like a hip-hop hotbed. It’s a sleepy, hilly borough with a quaint town square and several tony restaurants, a place seemingly built for winter wonderlands and Revolutionary War re-enactments.
But today, as it was in the ’90s, Ruffhouse Records is there and in the rap business.
The Ruffhouse office now is a more relaxed environment than the hectic, platinum-plated palace CEO Chris Schwartz first ran with partner/producer Joe Nicolo from 1989 to 1999.
That’s when the label was a Columbia Records imprint, and home to backwards-pants-wearing kids Kris Kross, Latino stoners Cypress Hill and a North Jersey trio known first as Tranzlator Crew — but you can call them the Fugees. Together and solo, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras scored big for Ruffhouse, while Philly acts like the punk-metal Dandelion and goofball rapping Goats kept the engine purring with respectable sales.
The label’s output netted gold and platinum records galore — more than 120 million albums sold worldwide — and Grammys to go with them. At its peak, around the time of 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Forbes estimated Ruffhouse’s worth at $175 million. The next year, Schwartz sold the label to Sony, Columbia’s parent company, in 1999 for an undisclosed eight-figure sum.
“I’m proud of every act on the first Ruffhouse and wouldn’t change a moment of the fun we had or when we sold it,” says Schwartz, who went on to form the less-successful RuffNation label for Warner Bros., start a film imprint that produced the locally lensed movie Snipes and raise a family before going quiet in the mid-2000s.
How Schwartz managed to reignite Ruffhouse in 2012 through the EMI label — signing nu-soul crooner Glenn Lewis and old friend “Ms. Hill” (as Schwartz calls her), while launching the career rejuvenation of wily Philly MC Beanie Sigel — could one day be the stuff of legend.
If they can just get through the next three and a half weeks. After that, Sigel, Ruffhouse 2.0’s first signing — who initially made his bones with the group State Property — starts a two-year stretch in prison for tax evasion.
Until then, Sigel has a new album, This Time, a quickly building radio hit, “The Reunion” (co-starring his State Property brethren Freeway, Young Chris and Peedi Crakk), and several high-profile gigs including Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
“We’re cramming to get so much stuff done before Beans goes,” says Schwartz. “I feel terrible for him and his family. I was there at the sentencing.” There is a mournful pause. “But look at these numbers,” exclaims Schwartz, ever the record man, pointing at the plentiful spins at influential hip-hop stations Hot 97 New York, WPWX Chicago and Power 99 in Philadelphia. “Top-ticket tour promoters want him. This album will sell big. If I only had another month.”
Once called a master of “street smarts and corporate savvy” by the New York Daily News for his vision of “commercially viable and consistently good” music, Schwartz knows all about timing.
“Who’s to say how numbers could’ve kept up had we waited to sell the label the first time around?” he says of Ruffhouse 1.0.
Like stocks on a hot streak, it’s a gamble. Since neither the Fugees nor Hill released another album after the label’s sale, save for the latter’s live MTV Unplugged 2.0, it’s safe to say that the label owner who started his professional life managing Schoolly D and promoting records for Delicious Vinyl made a good bet.
Besides, there was no shortage of suitors for Schwartz in 1999. David Geffen asked him to lunch at his Hollywood estate to discuss Dreamworks as a home for a new Ruff label. Virgin offered big bucks. Sony also wanted in. But Warner Bros. was special, the industry gold standard in Schwartz’s eyes, despite being, in 2000, an antiquated California rock label with no street cred and zero black-music presence save for the legacies of Prince and Ice-T.
“That was the challenge,” says Schwartz. “At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I got bored of platinum and gold. Warners was the last great American-owned label; no one in the hierarchy had been there less than 20 years. They had no black music. No kidding, I wanted to be the guy who brought black music back to Warners.”
Schwartz made the RuffNation deal, bought studio space in Culver City and pushed WB to think more quickly than they were used to. “Hip-hop and radio move faster than that,” he says. “Marketing hip-hop is like football. Get down the field, huddle and call plays as necessary.” RuffNation made inroads with Newark’s Outsiderz, R&B sensation Leela James and melodic rappers No Question?, all of whom were moving units when AOL bought Time Warner in 2001.
After that, department heads found themselves facing spending freezes. Several executives who brought Schwartz to WB quit. “The music side fell out,” he says. “It didn’t help that I was distracted by my distribution film deal with TriStar and put cash into Snipes,” he says of the film he produced starring then-newcomers Nelly and Zoe Saldana. “It was all wrong for that moment.”
Schwartz stayed at WB until 2003, then became an A&R consultant for Sony, a position he held until 2011. “It was me signing bands without the mess,” he laughs. “All I had to do was collect checks and go to confabs in Montauk.”
It’s no secret that the record biz is in a blue period; sales, especially for the majors, are at an all-time low. “That’s exactly why it’s a great time,” Schwartz declares with a chuckle. “It’s a level playing field: Everyone’s equally fucked.”
Luckily, he had pals to help him with Ruffhouse’s rebirth.
A&R whiz kids Vance Debose and Khan Jamal, friends from the RuffNation days, are on board. So is producer Phil Nicolo (the “Butcher brother” of ex-Ruffhouse partner Joe), who will serve as president to Schwartz’s CEO.
Serendipitously, Schwartz got a call from EMI, who, like WB in the ’90s, had little urban-music presence save for Tyrese, Anita Baker and Philly’s Chiddy Bang. “They needed us and we needed them,” he says. What Schwartz needed in order to complete Ruffhouse 2.0’s distribution deal with EMI was infrastructure, the money to stay coordinated and acts with constituencies.
“I heard that Chris was putting the band back together, so when he called it was a pleasant surprise but not a shock,” says Dean Sciarra, a senior partner in Ruffhouse with more than a few secondary titles. He’s a producer and the owner/president of ItsAboutMusic.com, which distributes the work of 300-plus classic and progressive rock artists. Schwartz craved the sort of organization that Sciarra (who confesses he’s “not a hip-hop guy”) had long ago mastered. “We were always part of another label’s release schedule,” says Schwartz. “With EMI, they’ll distribute, but we’ll call our own shots.”
“Labels are like plate-spinners,” says Sciarra, who will also help scare up investors. “My job is to keep as many plates spinning as quickly as possible.” Schwartz’s job as CEO is to get acts signed.
Acts with no track record are risky, but Ruffhouse is looking at 20 new artists, songwriters and producers that Schwartz calls his “Made in Philly” brand. None of those productions, though, will be Ruffhouse 2.0’s first release. That honor falls to veterans of the business.
A raw soul album from Glenn Lewis (“a true R&B singer’s singer,” says Schwartz) set for 2013 is one to watch. So is a track with Lauryn Hill, an as-yet-unnamed single due out soon. “I promise you what Ms. Hill has planned is more amazing that you can know.”
Then there’s Beanie Sigel’s This Time, an album that the rapper and the label owner believe is a game-changer, musically and lyrically, in that it doesn’t stick to his usual streets-are-hard gangsta lean.
“It was change or stop,” says Sigel, decked in black from cap to toe when he steps into Ruffhouse’s offices early one sunny morning. “I’m a different guy than when I started.” The MC that Jay-Z once called friend, collaborator and asset — Sigel made four Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam albums between 1999 and 2007 — had considered getting out of the game in 2011.
His run with rap’s biggest label having ended and occasional legal hassles taking hold (in 2004, he was found guilty of federal drug and weapons charges and spent 11 months in prison), Sigel just didn’t feel it anymore. “I wanted to concentrate on real life, my children. I can cook, too. I’m nice with it. I considered going to restaurant school and opening a place. Paula Deen, look out.”
Sigel wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of hunting down another label and crew. He also grew tired of the hardass Beanie persona and the music that went with it. In reality, the 38-year-old born Dwight Grant is a religious man with kids and a world-weary outlook. “The hard songs on my albums get your attention, but it’s always been the softer songs that got me.”
He found himself writing lyrics that were ruminative, filled with resignation and regret but also joy for the good that can happen. The music he was producing for himself was slower with slippery jazzy interludes. “I couldn’t stand that rap was becoming strictly for the club. It’s too much the same sound. I wanted to do something different or just end it.”
Schwartz called the rapper last year to hear what Sigel had burned onto a hard drive, a bold new record he had considered giving away before his ongoing tax troubles were set to plague him. The pair had never met, but Schwartz knew Sigel’s legend. Sigel knew Schwartz’s business largesse. “Fugees and how he came to sell them,” says Sigel with a grin. “That’s what I found fascinating about Chris.”
Ruffhouse’s boss loved what he heard, signed Sigel and put him into the studio to slick up the tracks and record additional material. Schwartz and Sciarra knew they had a hit on their hands, even as the rapper’s legal troubles loomed.
“What people don’t understand about a label is that it’s like steering a bus with no brakes,” says Sciarra. “Once you start, you can’t stop. You just have to make sure you adjust immediately to everything that pops up.”
What popped up next was no surprise. The rapper had warned Schwartz about the tax-evasion problems and signaled that perhaps this was not the time to invest in Beanie Sigel.
“We hoped for the best and it didn’t work out,” says Schwartz of Sigel’s July 2012 conviction. “Could’ve been worse. They wanted him for seven years. He’s paying for past sins.”
Like his label boss, Sigel was intent on making lemonade from lemons. “Chris opened the door and facilitated whatever I chose to do. I wanted a State Property thing first, but Chris suggested a solo album to start.” Their bargain was “The Reunion,” a track featuring State Property membership. “I just wanted to let people know there’s more to me than hard stuff. People think there’s only respect if there’s violence involved. I wanted to prove them wrong. It’s like the movies. People like action, but me, I love a good drama,” he laughs, mentioning The Godfather’s mix of family, rage and loyalty.
The loyalty that Sigel craves in his business dealings is the basis of what comes next. He’s working his ass off to make these last weeks count. He wants EMI and Ruffhouse to recoup the money they put into him. During his prison stretch, Sigel will do a lot of soul searching and planning. He’s already been away in jail when one of his albums was released.
“The B. Coming went gold while I was away.” He smiles, but this prison stay is no laughing matter and no badge of honor. When people ask Sigel if he’s having a going-away party, he cringes. “There ain’t nothing celebratory about this. I’m tired of living the cliché. This isn’t fun. I’m getting older and want to make music that my kids can listen to. I don’t want them to hear nothing but profanity. I don’t want them to think jail is cool.”
The loyalty that Sigel feels for his family and his music is comparable to the vibe he gets from Schwartz.
“I like Chris because when I didn’t want to do this, he pushed. I knew I had to leave the situation. I wasn’t up to this a lot of the time, but he kept telling me how much people love me and how our next album will be even better.”
As the two of them sit in front of a laptop with Schwartz reeling off the morning’s valued radio adds for “The Reunion,” Sigel laughs. “I guess he’s right,” he says, pointing to Schwartz. “I guess he knows what he’s doing after all. They believe in me. He holds weight. I’m in good hands.”